Obama’s Afghan test
Munich – For America’s friends and allies, who will welcome Vice President Joe Biden to the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend, President Obama’s second inaugural address was notable for its single-minded focus on U.S. domestic issues even as global challenges proliferate. It was the clearest sign yet that Obama intends to build his historic legacy at home.
No one quibbles with Obama’s conviction that America’s global role can best be sustained through a period of “nation-building at home.” The problem is the world is unlikely to hit the pause button as America gets itself off the fiscal cliff, reforms its immigration system, modernizes its infrastructure, fixes its education system and focuses on other long-neglected home chores.
Rude reality inevitably intrudes.
Even if Washington weren’t facing a world of escalating trouble spots – Syria, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, North Africa, and the disputed waters around China (for starters) – U.S. allies would be looking to Afghanistan as the leading indicator of how Obama 2.0 will balance domestic priorities against his global commitments.
With 50 countries still providing 102,052 troops in Afghanistan, how Obama manages his accelerated withdrawal of 66,000 forces by 2014 – and negotiates the mission and size of the residual force due to remain – is of more than academic interest. One senior diplomat of an allied country, who recently returned from a long stay in Afghanistan, worries that Obama administration officials are so focused on getting troops out that they haven’t fully studied the dramatically changed context for the few thousand left behind to look after what remains the world’s most dangerous region.
The Afghanistan debate is still conducted through a rear-view mirror, focusing either on wasted U.S. resources or unappreciated blood sacrifices. Zero Dark Thirty is in theaters, glorifying the killing of “Geronimo,” Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan, through a Navy Seal mission that was launched from eastern Afghanistan. Yet a glance at the road ahead suggests a new debate about the shifting context for allied engagement is urgently required.
Most important, an era has ended when the U.S. could comfortably apply military force to address dangers here – and elsewhere. In Iraq and now Afghanistan, U.S. officials have concluded they had reached the limits of what conventional force can accomplish. In the decade ahead, operations are more likely to be limited to discreet, covert anti-terrorist assaults and drone strikes – ending the broader counter-insurgency operations that require more boots on the ground.
That thinking will shape whatever residual force the U.S. seeks to leave behind in Afghanistan after 2014. In talks so far, Washington and Kabul have steered away from the “zero option” of complete U.S. troop withdrawal, thus avoiding the pattern of Iraq. President Hamid Karzai has personally committed to Obama that he will act this year to provide immunity guarantees for the remaining U.S. troops.
The rumored number of troops left behind ranges from 3,000 to 15,000. But a more interesting question may be whether Washington will try to negotiate the maintenance of and access to a number of Afghan bases, built at considerable U.S. taxpayer cost. These could prove useful for a host of new contingencies going forward.
One major concern is that Pakistan is facing a serious problem of radicalization. As he determines what presence the U.S. military may want in Afghanistan, Obama may need to consider what force he may need in a region where the worst-case scenario is Pakistan losing control of its nuclear weapons to extremists – through insurgency, instability or the ballot box.
The good news in Pakistan is that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the country’s military commander, is reshaping his military mission around the conclusion that home-grown, violent extremism is a bigger threat to his country’s stability than India. The bad news, however, is radicalization continues to seep into so many parts of Pakistan that internal security forces fear their country could reach the point of no return. Though U.S. drone attacks kill militants effectively, they also feed the tribal revenge lust that feeds extremism, and worrying reports of conflicts between government forces and Pakistan Taliban are increasing.
At the same time, Iran is posing new challenges from Afghanistan’s East. Facing setbacks to its interests in Syria and Lebanon, Tehran has escalated its engagement in Afghanistan. In addition to dissuading Afghan leaders from agreeing to a long-term U.S. troop presence, it is preparing to fill the security vacuum following American withdrawal.
One Afghan leader has complained in Washington that Iran is “buying” Afghan parliamentarians and ministers to build opposition to any future basing agreement. It is also arming and training local groups, to create the sort of fifth column of support that it has already set up in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
The Obama administration now takes justified credit for degrading Bin Laden’s al Qaeda, killing some 17 of the top 23 leaders (as well as many mid-level leaders). The sad truth that events in Mali and Algeria have driven home, however, is that the al Qaeda network of affiliates has never been stronger. It is now active in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and controls areas about the size of Texas in North Africa. Al Qaeda’s relative absence in Afghanistan is likely temporary.
In Munich this weekend, U.S. allies and friends will want to hear Biden’s views on Afghanistan’s future. Sadly, though, their list of concerns will only begin there.
PHOTO (Top): First Sargent Buddy Hartlaub with the Army’s 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division stands before a memorial to a dead soldier at Combat Outpost Terra Nova in the Arghandab Valley north of Kandahar, July 20, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong
PHOTO (Insert): Afghan girl washing clothes in a river looks at a U.S. Army soldier of the Battle company, 1-508 Parachute Infantry battalion, 4th Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, in the town of Senjaray, Zahri district of Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan May 29, 2012. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov